El Tatio, Chile

El Tatio Geysers – Between the Ice and the Heat of the Atacama

El Tatio Geysers Field
El Tatio is considered one of the largest and highest geyser fields in South America and the world. There are more than 80 geysers at an altitude of 4.200 meters.
adobe chapel
A roadside chapel halfway to El Tatio.
Great Coiron
A coiron of considerable dimensions stands out among pairs in the icy lands of the Andean altiplano.
A golden tuft of coiron, the hardy bushes that abound in the highlands of the Andean mountain range
Fox Tails or Bottle Wiper
Detail of the vegetation that closes the heated lagoons of the Puritana spa
Wool cross
A cross dressed in wool crowns a peasant chapel in a hamlet lost in nowhere on the way to El Tatio.
Boiling water
One of El Tatio's many geysers, clustered at more than 4.200 meters in altitude.
take off
Flock of flamingos take flight from the icy lake where they fed.
flamingoes pond
Flamingos in a pond that has frozen water and traps them, at night, until sunrise.
Between Ice and Heat
Ice formed by the freezing of boiling water projected by El Tatio geysers
Decorated mud
A lama marked and blessed with wool ornaments placed by the owners.
Trio of Atacama Camelides
Herds of llamas, vicuñas and alpacas are often seen in the highlands around El Tatio.
Well-drawn silhouettes against the steam released by the El Tatio geysers.
El Tatio's SPA
Bathers share the warm water from one of El Tatio's lagoons, while the surrounding temperature remains negative and there is ice on the ground.
The reward
Silhouettes of travelers bathing in the invigorating waters of the El Tatio thermal springs.
Puritan's Lagoon
Visitors relax in one of the heated lakes at Termas de Puritama, between San Pedro de Atacama and the Putana volcano.
El Tatio Geyser
El Tatio geiser projects boiling, sulphurous water.
Another Geyser from El Tatio
Geiser projects heat and steam from the stony soil of the Altiplano de Atacama.
Surrounded by supreme volcanoes, the geothermal field of El Tatio, in the Atacama Desert it appears as a Dantesque mirage of sulfur and steam at an icy 4200 m altitude. Its geysers and fumaroles attract hordes of travelers.

The Explora Atacama, one of the most renowned hotels in San Pedro de Atacama, will accompany your exquisite and sophisticated dinners, with some of the best Chilean wines.

So watered, the repasts delight and delight guests without reservations. But the early hours of the excursions to which they enlist do not go well.

The van departs from the courtyard – the former stables of San Pedro de Atacama – in the dark at 5:30 am, more than two hours before dawn.

Leave the city. Little by little, it advances parallel to the border with Bolivia and to the Andean sector of mountains and volcanoes that establishes it. Without being able to see anything of the scenery around, a good part of the eight passengers in the van let themselves sleep.

Attacking the Ascension to the El Tatio Plateau

A faint dawn opens the day. Nicholas, the guide, decides to save us waste and wakes up the entourage. Around this time, we skirted a shallow lagoon, inhabited by flamingos, wild ducks and other less showy birds.

El Tatio Geisers, Atacama, Chile, Between ice and heat

Flamingos in a pond that has frozen water and traps them, at night, until sunrise.

Nicholas takes advantage of the pretext to arouse our attention as well. “Friends, take a good look at the birds… it will seem like I'm making it up, but in these lakes, on cold nights, the birds sleep with their feet stuck in the ice. They only come loose in the morning – or in a little while – when the sun melts it again.”

We had neither way to prove it, nor reason to doubt it. Phenomena were not lacking in the region, far beyond the record-breaking aridity of the Atacama Desert.

We continued to climb through canyons littered with cactuses.

We crossed villages of adobe and lime with their picturesque houses and small churches made of adobe and thatched roof, blessed by crosses that the natives wear in bright wool.

Wool cross, El Tatio Geisers, Atacama, Chile, Between ice and heat

A cross dressed in wool crowns a peasant chapel in a hamlet lost in nowhere on the way to El Tatio.

And we reached the puna de Atacama, the Andean plateau normally considered above 4000 meters.

We spotted herds of vicuñas and lamas, some adorned with colored wool trinkets dangling from their ears. They are placed on them by the natives, in dedicated ceremonies, in the sense of blessing, identification and ownership.

The camelids we admire graze among coirones, also known as wild straw, the dry and cold-resistant low-hanging bushes that paint the vastness yellow.

Coirones, El Tatio Geisers, Atacama, Chile, Between ice and heat

A golden tuft of coiron, the hardy bushes that abound in the highlands of the Andean mountain range

Between Geysers and Fumaroles. El Tatio's Eccentric Geothermal Field

Almost 100 km and two hours after San Pedro de Atacama, the sun was already showing in its full splendor, we detected columns of smoke in the distance and in backlight. At first, they are confused with the product of small fires.

As we get closer, we unveil a Dantesque profusion of seething geysers and fumaroles.

El Tatio Geisers, Atacama, Chile, Between ice and heat

El Tatio is considered one of the largest and highest geyser fields in South America and the world. There are more than 80 geysers at an altitude of 4.200 meters.

Human figures walk through it, walking between the dancing curtains of steam. The indigenous people are used to treating this surreal setting by El Tatio “the old man who cries” or “the grandfather who cries”, in the Kunza dialect they used in the altiplano divided between the Chile, Bolivia and the Argentina.

Kunza became extinct sometime during the XNUMXth century, stifled by the spread of Castilian imposed by Hispanic settlers. Still, the name El Tatio has been passed down from generation to generation. In fact, disseminated behind the backs of backpacking gringos, it became eternal on a world scale.

We had reached the largest geothermal field in the Andes and the Southern Hemisphere, with an area of ​​10km². It is the third largest in the world after Yellowstone (USA) and Dolina Geizerov, member of the Kronotsky National Biosphere Reserve, in kamchatka peninsula, the eastern end of Russia.

At its 4300 meters of altitude, El Tatio is also the alleged geothermal field higher on the face of the Earth, with the eventual dispute of the Bolivian Sol de Mañana, a field between 4800 and 5000 meters but composed almost only of mud pits that release steam and sulphur.

El Tatio Geiser, Atacama, Chile, Between ice and heat

Geiser projects heat and steam from the stony soil of the Altiplano de Atacama.

Neighboring Bolivia creeps in to the side, east of the border established by the Altiplano-Puna volcanic complex, a conglomerate of stratovolcanoes and old caldera that, in prehistoric times, were at the base of gigantic eruptions.

By comparison, the legacy of this volcanic activity is tiny.

The El Tatio geysers project their eruptions at an average height of less than one meter and a maximum of five meters, distances only insignificant if we take into account the world record of the Yellowstone Steamboat geyser: 91 meters.

A Lagoon, Dozens of Travelers in Geothermal Ecstasy

Upon arrival, El Tatio and, in particular, its thermal pool generated successive manifestations of relief and joy in dozens of travelers who had gone ahead and bathed in a kind of natural jacuzzi.

El Tatio Geisers, Atacama, Chile, Between ice and heat

Bathers share the warm water from one of El Tatio's lagoons, while the surrounding temperature remains negative and there is ice on the ground.

Only at that hour did the outside temperature rise to positive. We could prove it by the sudden melting of ice around many of the eighty geysers.

Thus, between the dress and the undress, there was a lapse of unavoidable suffering that the bathers faced. Some with courage, others with pure unconsciousness.

The 30º at which the water sprouted made everything forget: the early morning awakening, the bumpy journey and even the headache that, at least in some of the outsiders, the mountain sickness and occasional alcoholic excesses from the night before, began to cause.

The thermal comfort of the lagoon guaranteed a ritualized, liberating and generative comfort of the warmest chats.

Certain bathers had been in Atacama longer. They were already repeating their incursions into the highlands on the eastern edge of the desert on the border with Argentina and Bolivia.

El Tatio Geisers, Atacama, Chile, Between ice and heat

Silhouettes of travelers bathing in the invigorating waters of the El Tatio thermal springs.

A few would even have climbed to exuberant volcanoes such as Cerro Toco, active Lascar, Licancabur or the neighboring Sairecabur, the last three to skim the 6.000 meters of altitude.

For these gringos, the reward of hot water would last as long as it did, or whatever the guides let it last. In the case of newcomers, it would have to be finished soon. The guides – at least they – knew how treacherous mountain evil could be revealed. And how much it would make customers suffer.

The Extremophile Microorganisms of the Atacama Desert

Other microscopic organisms, much more resistant to adverse conditions and that used those sulfurous waters, take us back to the phenomenal character of the Atacama Desert and its surroundings.

In 2003, a multinational delegation of scientists from NASA and the North American Carnegie Mellon University moved to Atacama with the purpose of implementing the Life in the Atacama, a program to improve the robotic rover vehicles they were preparing to use on the astrobiological mission Spirit.

After thorough investigation, the scientists concluded that only in Atacama had they found spaces without any kind of life. Thus, the place on the face of the Earth most similar to Mars was decreed.

Simultaneously, organic expressions found around proved to be analogous to those present in the early days of Earth, eventually also in the past existence of Mars.

Much more adapted and comfortable than the travelers sharing the pool, these so-called extremophiles have been proliferating for millions of years in the chimneys of the geothermal field. Mountain sickness is not known to cause them any discomfort.

In the particular case of El Tatio, organisms resistant to high water temperatures survive up to 74ºC of the 86ºC recorded in certain geysers, the boiling temperature at local altitude.

El Tatio Geisers, Atacama, Chile, Between ice and heat

One of El Tatio's many geysers, clustered at more than 4.200 meters in altitude.

They generate a kind of microbial mat that transforms into an eccentric sinter, a siliceous or limestone deposit derived from the compaction of microparticles at temperatures lower than those of melting.

The Microbiology of El Tatio vs that of HomePlate on Mars

However, avoiding more obscure intricacies of Physics and Chemistry, the fascination comes from the fact that several of these microstructures present in El Tatio are similar to those found in HomePlate, a 90-meter Martian plateau documented by the Spirit mission, from 2006 to 2010.

The homonymous rover scoured it until, in March 2010, it attacked a grainy soil on the northeastern slope of the formation. It was thus left to prove that the deposits detected there were, like those in El Tatio, biogenetic.

The El Tátio weather pattern dictates that, at around 8:30 am, rising winds disperse the resplendent vapor across the surface of the plateau.

The dazzling light that is installed reduces visibility and makes walking between geysers and chimneys riskier than ever.

El Tatio Geisers, Atacama, Chile, Between ice and heat

Well-drawn silhouettes against the steam released by the El Tatio geysers.

That day was no different. Some bathers who were persistent or who postponed their new submission to the cold outside, kept soaking.

Most of them soon left the thermal pool and aimed at villages in the region of Atacama, Caspana, Toconce, Ayquina, Chiu Chiu or others.

Adobe Chapel, El Tatio Geisers, Atacama, Chile, Between ice and heat

A roadside chapel halfway to El Tatio.

We accepted Nicholas' challenge. We inaugurate the return to San Pedro pueblo with strategic stops that, as promised by the guide, we do not regret.

El Tatio was not the only one geothermal field Of region. On the eminence of Guatin and its parched gorges dotted with cactuses, we stop at one of the Puritama hot springs.

We were almost a thousand meters below El Tatio. With the sun well up on the horizon, the ambient temperature had warmed. Puritama might not share the vaporous exuberance of the geyser field.

It had, however, a series of natural lakes that followed each other from top to bottom in the bed of a stream, surrounded by an eccentric forest of fox glue (fox's tails), as the Hispanics treat the plumeers, also known as clean. -bottles for reasons that stand out from their look.

The profusion of plants formed dense, circular hedges that surrounded each of the ponds. They gave them an atmosphere of retreat that contrasted with that which we had felt at El Tatio.

Puritana Lagoon, El Tatio Geisers, Atacama, Chile, Between ice and heat

Visitors relax in one of the heated lakes at Termas de Puritama, between San Pedro de Atacama and the Putana volcano.

Once upon a time, the Atacama Indians resorted to its waters filled with sodium sulfate to recover from fatigue, arthritis and rheumatism.

Little or no sleep in the previous nights, worn out from successive excursions and walks, we considered the first indication to be justified.

We undressed again. We slipped into a pond without a soul. We recovered the soul and the body until the skin withered and San Pedro de Atacama complain to us.

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